Speech Accessibility in Multiplayer and Co-op as a Person Who Stutters

With over 80 million stuttering people in the world, speech accessibility and speech accessibility awareness become increasingly relevant. The author takes a deep dive into these topics and different mechanics that games implement in order to facilitate and enhance cooperation and information flow.

My name is Patrycja, but I like to introduce myself as Pat when I don’t feel like stuttering on my full name. My lifelong love for playing games evolved into my love for making games. I’ve always liked to research game and speech-related topics, but have never been completely open and comfortable with my different speech (except all my stuttering gamedev colleagues!) until I became a member of the American Institute for Stuttering early in 2021, where I finally learnt what stuttering really is.

Let’s talk about games and speech

Games and speech: those two topics finally clicked for me when I got down to playing Operation Tango with my partner. The stakes are high, the clock is ticking. I am a spy who dictates a string of numbers to the hacker trying to make sense of it, and there it is: the dreaded number “eight” that I always stutter on. And number “one” as well. Imagine my stress when I have to say “eighty one”… Sometimes I manage to say everything fluently, but sometimes I get stuck, letting all those precious seconds go to waste, until the time runs out and we have to repeat the mission.

A room full of laser traps. The view shows a device with number codes in three different colors and a bar indicating the time is running out.
A device to hack the security system which needs numbers to be entered manually

This situation prompted me to delve deeper into speech accessibility, especially in the context of timed co-op challenges, where we need to speak fast and accurately in order to advance. Speech-related accessibility is a less researched and often overlooked topic of game accessibility. While the official Microsoft guidelines on game accessibility recognize different types of visual, motor and cognitive impairments, those experiencing a spectrum of speech problems are not mentioned on the list apart from “players who don’t communicate verbally, by choice or because of a disability”. The only problem is that the overwhelming majority of people who stutter don’t fall into this category: we communicate verbally and strive for fluency and successful information exchanges daily. We want to participate!

To start the conversation on the need for greater stuttering awareness and speech accessibility in this area, we need to identify and define the core problem.

Okay, so what is stuttering?

Stuttering, due to its elusive nature, complexity, and varying degrees of severity among individuals, has only fairly recently begun to be better understood, defined and treated. It is generally understood as a speech disfluency characterized by involuntary repetitions, prolongations or blocking of sounds, accompanied by secondary movements like head jerks, breaking eye contact or tensing up. Years of struggle and lack of acceptance within oneself or the environment lead to internalizing the notion that we shouldn’t let our stuttering be heard, thus developing and strengthening self-deprecating feelings and avoidance habits. Some of those habits (also known as avoidance behaviors) may include circumlocutions, substitutions of difficult words or adding filler words or sounds, all in pursuance of speech fluency. As of today, there is no known cure for it and the most recent treatments focus on regaining and improving the quality of life over focusing only on the tip of the iceberg – which is just what people can see and hear – and trying to conceal any speech imperfections under avoidances or tedious breathing techniques.

It’s important to highlight that stuttering is a wide continuum, ranging from people who can control their stuttering to a point where others can’t hear it to people who can spend a good minute fighting to utter every single word and dreading any social interaction.

Stuttering does qualify as a disability, although not all countries officially recognize it as such. A general social definition of a disability acknowledges that disability occurs whenever there is a condition that limits daily living or there is a mismatch between our abilities and the environment. While there is a continuous conversation about whether stuttering should be regarded as a disability and whether people who stutter themselves feel disabled, there is no doubt that this condition affects around 1% of adults and 5% of children around the world. If this percentage seems small, 1% translates to about 80 million – and counting!

How stuttering affects communication in games

Both stuttering and non-stuttering people find certain situations more stress-inducing than others. Still, there is a fundamental difference in how those two groups react, mentally prepare for them, perform and analyze them afterward. Stress isn’t the only factor influencing the speech of a stuttering person – some days we may just stutter more, but there is no real rule or pattern to this. But we can safely assume that there is a hierarchy of speech situations that pose different challenges and can be perceived as more “difficult” than others. There is also the added layer of perceived time pressure which may be significantly more inflated than the real time pressure of a given situation, which can exacerbate stuttering.

In terms of gaming, the speech difficulty hierarchy roughly looks like this:

  1. single-player games that do not require speech to play
  2. single-player games that require speech to play (like Albedo)
  3. multiplayer/co-op games with text chat
  4. multiplayer/co-op games with friends/family where speech is required to play
  5. multiplayer/co-op games with strangers where speech is required to play
  6. timed multiplayer/co-op games with friends/family where speech is required to play
  7. timed multiplayer/co-op games with strangers where speech is required to play

On average, the more stressful speech-wise a situation is, the more likely that a stuttering player may experience self-deprecating thoughts, feel anxious, excluded or even shy away from playing the most demanding games altogether. Games that do not feature a text chat and require a player to communicate in a limited time frame pose the biggest challenge.

The limitations that stuttering imposes on people who stutter are twofold. On the one hand, there is the physical aspect of what we hear. Colloquially speaking, sounds may get stuck in the throat. The so-called “blocks” can last anywhere from a millisecond to a few good seconds depending on the severity of stutter on a given day in a given individual. The same goes for sound prolongations or repetitions, where certain sounds, syllables or whole words can be repeated a few times.

There is also the mental aspect, which describes how we feel. People who stutter may take every precaution to avoid saying certain words or words beginning with certain sounds that they feel they will definitely stumble on. Trying to control stuttering at all costs is not always possible and may even exacerbate stuttering in a given scenario. Stress and frustration arise as a person who stutters knows exactly what and how to say what’s on their mind, but words don’t always flow as desired. All of those speech disruptions lengthen the time of uttering a complete message, sometimes slightly, sometimes considerably more than it would take a non-stuttering person.

Voice chat enhancers and alternatives

Communication in multiplayer games plays a vital role in team coordination and ultimately can decide about winning or losing. Of all communication means available, voice chat seems to be the best solution to communicate fast to ensure a timely response from team members. Not only does it give a huge tactical advantage, but it also makes the game more engaging and fun.

For people who stutter, using voice chat is a mixed bag. One of the more extreme examples are players who avoid voice chats at all costs for fear of being judged or inefficient at communicating important information fast enough, even if that means they miss out on some of the game’s features or give up on a game altogether. This happened to me when I was offered to try out raids in Destiny 2 after completing all current seasons. Raids rely heavily on good, timely and precise communication in order to complete puzzles and defeat enemies. Knowing this, I felt under pressure to perform well and after a few days of stressing out over stuttering in front of strangers, I ultimately gave up. Other stuttering people reported trying voice chat after unsuccessful text chat communication, but their messages came out too late and it didn’t help their team anyways. Because of this reluctance or difficulty speaking, stuttering gamers may be assigned or may consciously choose support roles where speaking out is optional, as opposed to leader roles. On the other side of the spectrum, some stutterers may become so engrossed in high-octane action that the commands they utter are perfectly fluent. Whether it’s the adrenaline rush or being comfortable in the game’s world, during some playthroughs they experience fewer blocks and repetitions than normal and don’t stress over minor stumbles that much. And even when their speech gets worse, they can always fall back to other means of online communication: text chat, voice lines or ping systems.

Text chat is the most obvious second choice of communication for players – and as accessibility awareness rises, it’s also becoming standard practice with game developers creating any kind of multiplayer games. Whether you don’t have a microphone, don’t want to wake your kids up, cannot speak, or just choose not to, text chats are the only other option to allow for complex information exchange. However, it comes at a cost. By the time you’re done typing out your action plan, a warning or a call to action, the moment of opportunity may be long past. Text chats are slow, both for the writer and the readers, the windows may be too small, text updates too distracting or just plainly too inconvenient for players to use, especially if they also feature gameplay updates.

A Soldier comes across a Spy who was dressed up like the player, spam-calling out for a Medic. A different player uses a voice line which identifies him as a Spy. Both “Medic” and “Spy” callouts are printed to the text chat.

Voice lines and emotes/taunts, if implemented in a way that’s in sync with the whole game, improve voice accessibility and also have the added bonus of enhancing the overall gameplay experience and community-building. By using them, we can give simple commands or warnings like “Go left”, “Sentry ahead”, “Thanks” or “That soldier is a spy”. Yes, Team Fortress 2 is the most excellent example here. But even those simple commands cannot convey a full picture of what’s happening on the battlefield and what we’d expect others to do. And still, you either have to conjure up some kind of a menu to choose what you want to say from a long list of expressions or assign a limited number of expressions to hotkeys.

Another example that’s worth mentioning is the ping system, which allows players to put a mark on points of interest, enemies or allies to direct your allies’ attention to them, available for instance, in Apex Legends, Valorant or Borderlands 3. It’s an especially effective and immersive tool if paired with character voice lines, like “Ammo here”, “Pills here” in Left 4 Dead. While they are quick and efficient in drawing attention to something, they may not be enough when you want to communicate a more complex strategy or quickly coordinate with other players on a timed and dynamically changing mission. League of Legends tries to amend this by offering various ping types, covering the most common types of combat and social situations. Apart from regular pings, there are Smart Pings available from a radial menu: Retreat, On My Way, Assist Me, Enemy Missing, Push, All-In, Hold, and Bait. The game also allows players to point to specific UI elements like the HP bar with pings, which prints their status to text chat.

As helpful and comprehensive as this mechanic is in League of Legends, it can still contribute to visual and informational clutter. Additionally, the basic ping has been found to be used more often than any of the Smart Pings, regardless of the situation. This is taken from a 2016 study “Ping to Win? Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems” where League of Legends had 6 ping types. The authors found that “the ‘basic’ alert is the most commonly used ping type in their dataset, making up 61.7% of all ping clicks.” More research is needed when it comes to the most current version of the game and players’ behaviors using non-verbal communication solutions in general.

The final type of non-verbal communication happens naturally and doesn’t require any additional mechanics: gestures. To indicate friendliness to an enemy player, you can walk towards them with a melee weapon out while crunching down like in Team Fortress 2 or wiggle sideways like in Escape from Tarkov or Battlefield. It’s often paired with moving your mouse from right to left as if shaking your head in an attempt to say “don’t shoot”. Nodding your head may mean understanding or confirmation, jumping is a way to capture someone’s attention or to show playfulness, while repeatedly crouching over a fallen enemy is a guaranteed way to remind them you’re a superior player. However, the limited usability of gestures doesn’t make them great tactical tools, as they work only when players face each other and catch on the cue. They are used mostly for their comedic effect or social bonding.

With the fast-paced action and cooperative spirit of multiplayer games, some good solutions level the field for people with speech difficulties, which also make good fall-back options when stuttering is too much to handle for the time being. However, no other mechanic works as well in combat scenarios as voice chat and there doesn’t seem to be any way around it yet.

Other players as accessibility drivers

Since successful communication and coordination in multiplayer and co-op games relies on human-to-human interaction, both parties to this transaction must be willing to cooperate. This includes being actively perceptive of and responsive to other people’s actions, commands, requests or just engaging in fun activities unrelated to the game’s objective. When those rules of conduct are repeatedly and deliberately broken, the game is at risk of developing a toxic community. Toxic players make the game less enjoyable for everyone. For people with speech disabilities, there is another, more personal and sensitive layer to this. Most of the stuttering people I talked with experienced bullying, ridicule or some sort of teasing because of their different speech, which may lead to internalizing their negative beliefs about themselves and only fueled the fear of social interactions.

Players gathering around in the main hub to use party-related taunts. Three players standing on an elevated surface summoned ghostly-looking instruments and are making some noise, while a group of players is standing below them, either watching the spectacle or using dancing taunts.

I talked to my former gamedev colleague, Damian, about his experiences as an avid multiplayer gamer with a stutter.

“It was when I started engaging in CS:GO more that I started to feel the need to coordinate with the others. I felt that if I wanted to develop my skills, I needed a dedicated team, and I needed to communicate like a team member instead of playing solo or only giving out short, easy-to-say information to random strangers. This is what fed my anxiety. Will I be able to convey clearly and concisely what I want to say? Or will I block and be too paralyzed to speak and act further?

The answer to both questions is yes. Over the years, I met many wonderful people with whom I communicated fluently, even though stuttering was still present. Sometimes, the atmosphere was so positive, and we got so immersed in the game, that I completely forgot I stutter. But sometimes, the fear of speaking would return, along with this paralyzing stress that I can’t say whatever and however I want to say it. I kept quiet, which is the worst anti-solution to the problem, as it only made me feel more guilty.

The problem with verbal paralysis has become even more burdensome in newer multiplayer games, where locations tend to be very detailed and varied, especially when we’re in an open world. This makes it impossible to fully predict how the game will go. In CS:GO, where you had smaller arenas, it was easier to learn the names of locations and just say them. In many modern games and battle royal modes, communication is much more complex and difficult as you have to describe places, actions and commands with precision and in detail.

For me, solutions for non-verbal communication, like in Apex Legends or Valorant work only up to a point and become less efficient with the rising gameplay complexity level. But it’s just difficult to change anything here, no developer has yet discovered any genius solutions for this problem. So all I was left with was embracing it, getting out of my comfort zone and talking. Stuttering is and always will be a part of my life and I noticed that, in the end, most people don’t care about how I speak and we just enjoy the game.”

A lot of people who stutter share Damian’s sentiment. Toxic gamers will always be a part of the landscape and in the end, it all boils down to how we react to negativity and how we fuel our emotions. The majority of players strive for cooperation nonetheless. They will create a positive environment that fosters mutual respect and often won’t even mention any speech disturbances. One of such people is Igor, who describes playing Squad with stuttering gamers as a fluent person:

“I don’t really care how they speak, I’m just really glad they are speaking at all since there are so many people on mute, it helps!”

Timed sequences in co-op games

Co-op games pose a slightly different challenge. As the name of the genre suggests, co-op games rely heavily on cooperation that is facilitated by effective communication. Those games provide a challenge that requires 2+ people to coordinate, whether by sharing aloud what’s on their screens, or ordering other players to perform certain sets of actions, often in a specific time frame. Timed co-op games differ from standard PvP multiplayer mentioned above in that players don’t have to communicate quickly due to the inherent nature of the genre – they need to communicate quickly because of deliberate gameplay choices made by developers to introduce constraints.

Timers are there for a reason. Some games may display them overtly, like in Among Us, to prompt the players to reach a decision, or covertly, like in We Were Here, where certain actions need to be timely coordinated and the passage of time is indicated by external actors, like an approaching death figure or frost gradually covering the screen. This imposes a dramatic effect to elicit certain responses, increasing tension and challenge. While for an average player this is a valid and effective mechanic if properly implemented and balanced, some players for various reasons may want to discover a game’s story and enjoy its mechanics without rushing, or they have certain physical or mental limitations which make it impossible for them to enjoy or progress through a game due to the timer reaching zero.

Let’s explore some examples in more detail.

First, a bomb-defusing game where each party needs to describe in detail the symbols, colors and numbers of the bomb’s modules and perfectly time actions – Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. This complexity and heavy reliance on time (it’s a bomb, after all!) may render the game highly inaccessible for people with speech difficulties. And I will be the first one to cast the stone here: when the game came out, some friends of mine suggested playing it during a gathering and my anxiety just went through the roof. I knew how precise and fast you must be in your descriptions to successfully clear a level. If I manage to curb my stuttering, everyone will be happy. If I fail, we lose and I will be to blame for it. The developers of Keep Talking introduces some accessibility features later on, like extending timers to max 10 minutes per level and the option to exclude some modules. It’s a step in a good direction, but you still need to rely on mods if you want to eliminate timers altogether.

A menu introduced by a mod called Bomb Creator which allows players to change every aspect of the game, including timer extension helps with accessibility

But timers don’t have to be punishing. Overcooked! is a game that’s all about that pace – in a set amount of time, players need to work together to prepare as many dishes as possible. The queue of orders and ingredients for each dish are well visible on the UI, and there is nothing hidden from the other player, which means that in extreme cases, you can even play this game without exchanging any words at the expense of greater efficiency. However, the simplicity of gameplay and the predictable set of phrases that need to be exchanged compensate for its fast pace. Dan, a stuttering friend of mine who played the game with his friends, told me about his experience playing Overcooked! with friends:

“Communication is key to making sure the orders go out before the timer is up. The game itself is hectic fun, but I found as a stutterer it was a bit more challenging if I was the one barking orders “give me the tomatoes, we need more onion” etc. I played with friends but I imagine online play would be a different story.”

One last example worth mentioning is It Takes Two. It’s a sweet story of a couple fixing their relationship, full of exciting challenges, fun mini-games, and even soulslike boss battles. Even though there are events when quicker communication is needed, the game is designed with speech accessibility in mind from the start. Most importantly, any failure only leads to a greater understanding of a given sequence and a better and more satisfying second run. The sequences of events are clear and the game gives you time to coordinate actions in between. Pause is always available if you need to stop the action to communicate in peace. Split-screen also helps, as it makes it easier to follow the other player, understand their situation instantly and act accordingly, all without or with limited words.

Split-screen view in the game, seeing combat from two different perspectives, which allows players to keep track of the actions of the other player and act accordingly. Characters also communicate their goals and needs through voice over.

In short, complexity of gameplay should be matched with a respective amount of accessibility, be it in design or accessibility options. Failure to do so actually has the opposite effect of introducing inaccessibility, making the game hard to play or even unplayable for some players.

Solve for one extend to many

Speaking fast, accurately and fluidly is not a question of skill, but accessibility. Leveling the playing field and designing systems that don’t punish players for late responses won’t spoil the experience for speech-abled people, but will only make the game more enjoyable by a wider audience.

As a wrap-up, here are some future considerations for designing good speech-accessible games:

  • Last-minute afterthought accessibility implementations never work. They may check your accessibility checkbox, but may not work for people who need it.
  • Communication is too complex to be fully successful if voice communication is interrupted or not used and no alternatives are given.
  • Non-voice channels usually work great when paired with voice chat, as they are a great crutch for people who stutter. Instead of giving out details, we may say “look here” and ping.
  • Non-voice channels that are implemented well (that is, they work well within the world of the game and aid flow and immersion) can successfully substitute the need to coordinate actions via a voice chat.
  • A spirit of cooperation and hospitality needs to be fostered within a community so that players who stutter can feel welcome and unaffected by stumbles in their speech.
  • Improving accessibility for one group, extends it to other groups. Features that accommodate people who stutter benefit other groups, like people with cognitive difficulties or who don’t or can’t speak at all.